From Star Wars to Sin City

 

Star wars logo

An excerpt from the 6 Degrees of Film: The future of film in the Global Village by Mary L Johnson:
“Star Wars is not a simple morality play; it has to do with the powers of life as they are either fulfilled or broken and suppressed through the action of man,” wrote Joseph Campbell, one of George Lucas’s inspirations for the mythology used to create Star Wars.
Mark Dippe, a visual effects supervisor, said that the first thing he thought when he saw Star Wars in 1977 was, “Who the hell is this guy George Lucas? The film just stood apart; it still does. I think George Lucas’s films had a big influence on changing the process and vocabulary of filmmaking. The legacy of Star Wars is that at ILM [Industrial Light and Magic], we get a chance to work on creating things that haven’t been seen before.”
Over twenty-five years ago, George Lucas incorporated Industrial Light and Magic after he made Star Wars and extended his empire into the first decade of the twenty-first century. From approximately 1987 through 2012, major developments from ILM and other parts of the industry have made the film industry what it is today. The industry witnessed the end of an era in film and the beginning of a new age of moviemaking.
Industrial Light and Magic has definitely framed the era and defined it with their many breakthroughs in visual effects. The storyboarding that is critical to their vision is now a major part of most successful film series, and the comic genre that has emerged would not have been a reality without the effects of ILM.
The criticism that Lucas and Spielberg films have juvenilized the movies, to my mind, is unfair. These filmmakers have given the public what they want, and there never has been a dearth of creative talent in the film industry. On the contrary, there are many exciting new avenues for young and innovative minds to bring their creations to the screen, including Internet productions and independent venues. We are always seeing new ways for artistic talent to emerge as the next big thing.
Film is changing and evolving as it has from the beginning, and the medium as a mass-communication tool and an art form make this an exciting time to break into the market. The future of film may involve the type of images seen in Sin City and Waltzing with Bashir, where actors are not filmed in the traditional way but with a kind of brushstroke or cartoon quality that enables the plot to go in many different directions. There might be alternate endings and story lines to follow with endless variations. Online, the viewer can access alternative views from various characters’ perspectives.
The experience of going into a darkened theater to view a film is changing forever. As in the penny arcades and nickelodeons that began the first century of film, we now see the evolution and dawn of a new age and a new way of understanding the world through the medium of film.
George Lucas spoke of his ideas on the future path that might occur using film and some kind of drug to enhance the experience. His ideas regarding future films would make theatrical, narrative-driven movies, in his words, “as quaint as an old silent-reeler”:
I see true environments being created and combined with a lot of biotech things going on, in terms of manipulating people’s senses through drugs. This combination will have the most powerful effect on the kind of storytelling we’re doing today. It’s too far off for me to worry about, and I’m not interested in virtual reality at its current level, because it’s just too crude. But if you can program virtual reality or simulator rides with biotech, you will have a very interesting non-world. The first step would be to take the simulator ride part of an environment … where you can just implant the story in a pill and live it.
That’s not outside the realm of possibility. You’d take the pill and go to sleep. It’d be like a dream and you’d have an actual, real, physical experience of something completely imaginary. What that’ll mean for society, I have no idea, and how you’d get there from here is way beyond me, but I know enough to know it’s within the realm of possibility. Because they’re already going there, creating images without actually making them, just as you create them in a dream.

Industrial Light and Magic

Jim Morr, a former president of ILM, said, “When ILM started, there was no effects industry. Now there’s an industry beyond ILM. I’m sure there are people who feel ILM has become too corporate since the early Star Wars days. Well, we are working on major Hollywood motion pictures, so it’s certainly not a free-for-all. But we are still kind of funky when you compare us to a business like IBM or Xerox.”
Lucas said, “ILM is also a company where it has to make enough money to develop the state of the art. So everything has to be done extremely efficiently, and they have to generate enough money year after year to be able to buy new equipment. It’s a very capital-intensive business, so that means a huge amount of money is reinvested every year after year after year. And most companies can’t do that.”
The Roots of ILM
A Life magazine story from the 1960s summed up the crisis in visual effects in movies: “There were so many innovations occurring in film, but in the field of special effects, there was a dearth of ideas. The big studios couldn’t finance the large Technicolor spectacles that had been the signature entertainment for decades at studios like MGM and Paramount. By the sixties, the film industry had begun to resemble, a company town where the mine has closed.”
Demographics had changed, and audiences had changed. Even television had evolved, and the world was rapidly changing too. This meant that movies needed to evolve and adapt to the changing times. There was an opening for a big turnaround movie.
One appeared in 2001: A Space Odyssey. At 2001’s release in 1969, Stanley Kubrick’s innovations were the cutting edge in technological advancement in films. But Kubrick’s innovations did not translate into other copy-cat films, and Kubrick remained something of a lone-wolf figure. For one thing, the film was made in England and was too big and too expensive to emulate. The film failed to revive the waning special-effects industry in Hollywood. But it did inspire a generation of young filmmakers who saw that it could be done.
George Lucas was one who acted on that inspiration. He said, “Almost from the moment film was invented, there was this idea that you could play tricks, make an audience believe they were seeing things that really weren’t there. But this was completely lost by the 1960s.”
Lucas labored for two years on his Star Wars script. The film’s goal was to create a universe. But beyond that, he was looking for a storyline that would serve as a staging ground for a new kind of mythology.
Lucas said, “I was struck [at the time] by the fact that the western was the last American myth and there’d been no mythology created since the mid-fifties. I thought space was the next environment where you could begin to develop that mythology.”

History of Industrial Light and Magic

George Lucas created ILM in 1975 to provide visual effects for Star Wars. How he did it is a story that in many ways parallels the innovations that Steve Jobs incorporated at Apple. A new approach to special effects was needed and a void to be filled. Lucas saw it and acted.
Most of the major studios had begun to dismantle and discard the trappings of the studio system. They had sold off their back lots, auctioning off props and equipment. Among the casualties of this corporate downsizing were the effects departments. The most talented of the artists either retired or scattered to find work. Consequently, cameras were consigned to the scrap heaps, put in storage, or sold cheap.
“Visual effects was, at the time, a dying art. A number of studios passed on the [Star Wars] script before [Fox] picked up the project.”
In forming ILM, Lucas sought to emulate the studio-effects departments that were now long gone in Hollywood. One of the first things ILM did was to look at the past and become resourceful in renovating the old equipment. They set out to locate an outdated camera known as a VistaVision.

The History of VistaVision

VistaVision, invented in the 1950s, is a film format used to create big-screen images such as those in The Ten Commandments. VistaVision also was used in the classics North by Northwest and White Christmas.
Although Paramount studios developed VistaVision, they soon abandoned it as too expensive. And theater owners had to retool theaters to show the films made in the format. Only about twenty theaters ever really retooled to show the movies to their full advantage.
Industrial Light and Magic wanted to achieve superior visual quality in their shots. They solved some of their problems by incorporating the old VistaVision cameras, acquiring them at bargain-basement prices. The two cameras built for use in The Empire Strikes Back were the first live-action VistaVision cameras built since the days of The Ten Commandments. For that reason, an old Ten Commandments poster hung above the printer in the optical department at ILM for many years.
ILM reimagined and retooled VistaVision equipment to become the VistaFlex camera. These cameras became one of the most significant (and also underrated) advances in camera technology after Star Wars. But unlike their predecessors, these cameras were lightweight and compact—the hot-rods of photographic equipment.
After Star Wars achieved its historic global box-office success, ILM became the permanent special-effects unit of Lucasfilm Ltd. Subsequently, a renaissance of VistaVision technology flourished at ILM. This innovative group also would go on to develop motion-control technology.

Motion Control

Motion control is the ability to control the movement of the camera, and the photographic subject in synchronization to the movement of the film through the camera. After the success of Star Wars, ILM had the opportunity to accelerate enormously the integration of electronics and filmmaking.
Motion control started in 1971 with Douglas Trumbull using it on the film Silent Running. John Dykstra, who worked at ILM and was a special photographic effects supervisor for Star Wars, had been a member of that team. Dykstra recalled, “We took archaic cameras, built before we were even born, and we created hybrids of them by bolting different parts together. Nobody else was inventing cameras to make films in 1975. We were there when a genre was being born and reborn.”
It is fair to say that George Lucas and his team rescued a dying part of their industry—the art of special effects—and transformed it into something wholly different, something extraordinarily special—even unique—to enhance the term special in the phrase.

The Dykstraflex System

Another breakthrough moment in the early history of ILM came with the Dykstraflex system, named for John Dykstra, the photographic effects supervisor for Star Wars.
The Dykstraflex system was built before the advent of personal computers. All of the interaction is between the motion-control system and the camera operator. The system was in operation for fifteen years, from 1976 to 1993.
Until the computer revolution hit with full force in the 1990s, the compositing process was in the hands of ILM’s optical department—the optical dogs—who were required to handle an incoming rush of film elements while ignoring the heat of deadline pressures. Little did they realize that by the spring of 1994, the old, photochemical optical process would be completely replaced by the electronics of digital computers, and the optical dogs would become obsolete.
So it went with a lot of the old optical equipment. It was either decommissioned and put on display or dismantled. The optical department itself was reduced to a small staff with two computerized motion-control printers. Talk was that celluloid film itself might soon become extinct.
In the anticipated future without physical film, the digital cameras would be used to record live-action or composite elements. Then the computer graphics would generate three-dimensional characters and sets, and compositing and editing would be accomplished in the digital realm. The final movie would be beamed directly to home viewers by satellite or through computer modem or electronically projected in the quaint, old-fashioned confines of a movie theater.
Metaphor for the End of an Era: Shattering the Glass
From 1990 through 1993, the industrial part of the ILM equation changed dramatically. ILM had a beautiful four-foot-tall and six-foot-wide glass painting of the gothic New York City building used in Ghostbusters II. But the glass had warped and shattered when ILM tried to have it framed. That was the end of glass paintings. The same could be said for the old-fashioned way that brush and oils were used for matte paintings on film. Within five years, the outmoded brush and oils were replaced by the digital medium.
The company was experimenting with the new Photoshop program on Macintosh (Mac) computers, and the head of the computer graphics department realized they could do matte paintings and composites on this simple little box. Ironically, Lucas himself is not a digital graphics guy at heart. He said,
I’ve never been that interested in computers … I’m interested in making movies and creating images and in doing it in the easiest way possible. When you start out making movies, you’re trying to get the largest vision with what amounts to a limited amount of resources. So it’s a constant struggle to add more colors to the palette, and the way you get more colors is to spend huge amounts of money. But at some level, there are colors you can’t get, because no amount of money will get you there.
With Star Wars we were basically off the color palette. The technology did not exist, but that’s what the story was. I wanted to tell this story, but the color only existed in theory. The only way you’ll get there is to create technology that will bring those colors into the realm of what’s achievable, and that’s basically what ILM was. So I had to get involved in computers and the high-tech area … And for a long time at ILM, the state of the art was using computers to manipulate hardware—the old-fashioned nineteenth century celluloid—through sprockets technology … In 1978–79, I put together a computer division because I wanted to get a digital printer.
A microcosm of the end of the studio system occurred with the computer age replacing the age of cameras and sprockets. George Lucas began by reorganizing the entire computer-graphics division at Industrial Light and Magic.
Lucas continues, “On T2 [Terminator 2] I realized that we didn’t need to think in three dimensions all the time, that the images for film are really two-dimensional and flat. Once I realized that we could paint on the individual film frames … I realized we could do anything.”
Through the use of computer graphics, Lucas transformed not only ILM, but the entire film industry within five years. By 1993, ILM had entered into a strategic business alliance with Silicon Graphics (SGI) that allowed for ongoing cooperation in developing high-powered workstations (computers).
At this point, the Mac Squad was formed. They utilized Macintosh computers and Photoshop software to combine the digital world with such traditional departments as optical, animation, and rotoscope. {Author’s Note: Rotoscoping is a technique in which animators trace over footage, frame by frame, to use in live-action. The glowing light saber in all three original Star Wars films, was a product of rotoscoping.} As with the beginning years of film production, the processing power and the speed and memory of computers made the transition to digital occur many years earlier than some had believed to be possible. Computers were becoming faster, and memory capability was doubling at an incredible rate.

The Age of Industrial Light and Magic

The film age we now live in is the age of Industrial Light and Magic. In essence, today is the age of the computer and special effects. For many years, the special-effects personnel worked anonymously. But with Star Wars, that anonymity ended. And so it continues that movie audiences expect and demand to be thrilled and dazzled by the artistry onscreen.
Lucas, naturally, disagrees with critics who claim that special effects tend to overpower subtleties of plot and character at times. He said, “The people who saw Star Wars and said ‘spectacular special effects!’ just never understood it. The same thing with Indiana Jones … Some people look at those movies and they don’t see the intricacies of the character and story … You can see so many movies released in the wake of those two movies, just loaded with special effects and stunts, but they don’t make very interesting movies.”

Future Shock

Industrial Light and Magic’s retooling included the sweeping away of archaic trappings of the industrial age. By the spring of 1994, the property master was cataloguing and auctioning off many old props, industrial hardware, and memorabilia that ILM had acquired in the 1970s.
This new technowave was felt with brutal suddenness in the halls of ILM. The old matte-painting department was replaced with computer hardware and painting-software systems. The old motion-control camera was replaced by some twenty computer-graphic workstations. The optical printing department was virtually eliminated by a high-powered scanner.
Dennis Muren of ILM said, “We became professionals as a calling, not just a career choice … I feel like the world has changed around us with a suddenness that no one could have predicted—and right now, we’re experiencing future shock!”
Lucas has nostalgic reflections. After all, he was the one who resurrected the VistaVision equipment to make Star Wars. He said, “I don’t like technology much, so I have no emotional ties to the technology whatsoever … I care about the images on the screen, and I’m not really enamored with the process at all. As a matter of fact, technology mostly gets in the way, and therefore, you’re constantly trying to get a better tool … On the practical side, I don’t think anybody really likes to stand out in the snow at three o’clock in the morning when it’s forty degrees below zero.”

 

Published by

MLJ

Author of "6 Degrees of Film: The Future of Film in the Global Village", Ms. Johnson continues to blog on film and publishes a newsletter plus the Flipboard magazine 6 Degrees of Film @ the Movies. Her book is currently available on Amazon at http://www.amazon.com/Degrees-Film-Future-Global-Village/

2 thoughts on “From Star Wars to Sin City”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s